CARRABASSETT VALLEY — Eight skiers were injured and dozens more left dangling in a freezing blow Tuesday when three chairs on a chairlift at Sugarloaf crashed about 30 feet to the ground when a cable derailed.
Rebecca London, one of the skiers who tumbled to the snow, told The Associated Press that her face hit a chairlift restraining bar, but that her goggles spared her from serious injury.
She credited new snow on the trail underneath the lift with a soft landing; the resort said it got 20 to 22 inches in Monday's storm.
Most of the skiers who fell appeared to be stunned but OK, she said.
Jay Marshall, a ski coach, was on a moving lift next to the broken one. There was a "snapping noise" after the lift restarted, he said, then some screams.
"The next thing I know, it was bouncing up and down like a yo-yo," said Marshall of Carrabassett Valley.
Marshall, a lifelong skier, said it was too difficult to watch, so he looked away.
"It was terrifying," he said.
The Spillway East Chairlift derailed just after 10:30 a.m., according to officials at Sugarloaf, Maine's tallest ski mountain.
A derailment is when the cable carrying the chairs comes off the rolling wheels or the "sheave train," which carries the cable over the chairlift towers. The chairlift's safety system causes it to turn off when a derailment occurs.
The cause of the derailment was unknown but a lift manufacturer will begin an investigation with Sugarloaf officials Wednesday, said Brad Larsen, vice president of Sales and Marketing.
The Sugarloaf Ski Patrol evacuated those still suspended on the chairlift by using a system of ropes and belaying devices used by mountaineers. The rescue took just under two hours in temperatures that hovered around 9 degrees.
Traveling on the adjacent Spillway West lift at the time of incident, Jack McAlevey of Silvercreek, N.Y., said the lift appeared to sag with a gust of wind and then it stopped.
He said the lift was making clicking sounds and shaking. His cousin Jane Ouillette of Belfast said she had been on the lift Monday and also heard clicking and felt shaking.
Sugarloaf officials estimated the Spillway lift, comprising 162 chairs, carried up to 150 people on the lift at the time of the accident.
All other lifts were shut down to prevent other skiers and snowboarders from getting in the way of the rescue. With an estimated 5,000 skiers at the resort Tuesday during the holiday vacation, many were back on the slopes by noon.
Both state inspectors and outside engineers had been called in to help determine what went wrong on the 35-year-old Spillway East chairlift. The 4,000-foot lift, installed in 1975, undergoes a daily, weekly and monthly inspection in addition to a yearly inspection by Maine's Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety. It was inspected by state officials in October and is one the resort has slated for replacement as part of a 10-year improvement plan by parent company, Boyne Resorts of Michigan.
Larsen said the age of the lift was not unusual by national standards and across the country there are thousands of chairlifts that age still in use.
“It's a rare occurrence,” Larsen said of the incident Tuesday.
Spillway East chairlift's start-up had been was delayed Tuesday morning due to gusting winds of about 40 mph. Mountain officials monitor wind factors, including sustained speed, gusts, wind direction and air temperatures and decided wind conditions were acceptable and to open the lift about 9:55 a.m., said Richard Wilkinson, Sugarloaf's vice president of mountain operations.
"Sugarloaf Mountain and its employees are concerned for the people involved, additionally the resort would like to express gratitude to all the safety personnel that have responded to this incident," the release stated. "Sugarloaf Mountain is absolutely committed to the safety of its guests and employees."
Franklin County's Emergency Management Agency director also responded to the resort with the county's emergency communications vehicle. Several local fire departments were also alerted to the accident and placed on standby.
In November, the resort hosted a statewide training drill that involved a scenario where a chairlift derailed. Training on chairlift evacuations is an annual requirement for all National Ski Patrol members.
The last time Sugarloaf had a serious lift incident was in 1987 when two gondola cars detached from the haul cable and fell to the ground. Two people inside one of the cars that fell were injured, one seriously, according to a report in the Lewiston Daily Sun. Another 87 had to be rescued from the disabled gondola at the time.
That gondola is no longer in use.
Regional Editor Scott Thistle contributed to this report.